Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) was an award-winning bestselling author of detective novels and non-fiction. He is best known for his much-loved Police Procedural
series about Navajo Tribal Policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, set primarily on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. Leaphorn is older, seasoned, and a bit cynical, while Chee is young and idealistic and dreams of becoming a Hatałii
, or Navajo shaman. Leaphorn eventually retires but continues to play an active role in major investigations.
Hillerman was a decorated World War II veteran who also worked as a crime reporter. He had grown up among Native Americans in Oklahoma and identified with them as fellow country folk. He has also acknowledged creative debt to the mystery novels of British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield, who wrote about a half-white, half-Aborigine detective named Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte
, who worked with a deep understanding of tribal traditions.
Today Tony Hillerman is widely credited as the Trope Codifier
of the Native American detective novel. Authors following his footsteps include Thomas Perry, Kirk Mitchell, Margaret Coel, James Doss, Sandra Prowell, Dana Stablenow, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Louis Owens, and Linda Hogan.
In December 2012 it was announced that Hillerman's daughter Anne Hillerman plans to continue the Leaphorn/Chee series. Spider Woman's Daughter
will be published in Fall 2013.
The complete Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee books are:
- The Blessing Way (1970)
- Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)
- Listening Woman (1978)
- People Of Darkness (1980)
- The Dark Wind (1982)
- The Ghostway (1984)
- Skinwalkers (1986)
- A Thief of Time (1988)
- Talking God (1989)
- Coyote Waits (1990)
- Sacred Clowns (1993)
- The Fallen Man (1996)
- The First Eagle (1998)
- Hunting Badger (1999)
- The Wailing Wind (2002)
- The Sinister Pig (2003)
- Skeleton Man (2004)
- The Shape Shifter (2006)
- The Fly on the Wall (1971)
- Finding Moon (1995)
- The Boy Who Made Dragonfly (1972)
- Buster Mesquite's Cowboy Band
The novels of Tony Hillerman provide examples of:
- Canon Welding: Leaphorn was actually created first in The Blessing Way. Jim Chee came later in People of Darkness. The two characters were finally brought together in Skinwalkers.
- The City Vs The Country: A source of tension in Jim Chee's relationship with Janet Pete, the half-Navajo daughter of a white socialite from the East Coast. She wants him to leave The Rez behind and come back with her to DC as a polished FBI agent; he wants her to return to her Navajo roots.
- Death by Materialism: In Skeleton Man a man dies in a flash-flood when he could have saved himself by letting go of a bag of diamonds. Elsewhere, the materialism of mainstream American society is often commented upon as a source of disaster and unrest.
- Discretion Shot: All varieties. Hillerman's books are generally pretty clean.
- The Exotic Detective: The Leaphorn/Chee series originally came across as this. Before Hillerman stories about Native American detectives on The Rez were rare, although today it's a whole subgenre.
- FBI Agent: Homicides committed on the reservation are FBI jurisdiction, so they appear quite a bit. Individual agents such as Kennedy and Osbourne often get along with the Navajo Tribal Police, although the FBI as a whole is generally portrayed as a meddling and inept bureaucracy.
- Fake Nationality: Both an in-universe and a meta example. In Sacred Clowns Jim Chee, Janet Pete, and a Comanche agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs attend the screening of a film about Comanches that actually used Navajo actors. It is commented that Hollywood apparently thinks all Native Americans look alike. Ironically, however, the TV adaptions of Hillerman's novels starred the Cherokee Wes Studi (Leaphorn), the Canadian Saulteaux Adam Beach (Chee), the Mohawk Alex Rice (Janet Pete), and other non-Navajo actors and actresses.
- Faux Action Girl: Hillerman's daughter Anne Hillerman thought Bernie Manuelito had shades of this, often coming across more as the "love-struck girlfriend of Jim Chee" than a strong law enforcement officer in her own right. She says she was happy that Manuelito was given a bigger role as a policewoman in Skeleton Man - in which she finds the missing jewels and confronts the villain - but was disappointed that she ultimately had to be rescued by Chee. Her father actually agreed with her. Anne plans on giving Manuelito an expanded role in the upcoming Spider Woman's Daughter. 
- Film of the Book: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, and Coyote Waits were adapted for television as part of PBS's American Mysteries! series.
- Girl Next Door: Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito, whom Jim Chee ends up marrying. She's a pretty, cheerful, down-to-earth fellow Navajo cop who is contrasted to Chee's previous love interest, the sophisticated, half-white lawyer Janet Pete.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Almost all of Hillerman's novels have either a two-word title or a three-word title starting with "The." (The Fly on the Wall, Dance Hall of the Dead, and People of Darkness are the only exceptions.) Usually, they will be of the format "[Verb]ing Noun," "The [Noun] Way," or "The [Adjective] [Noun]."
- Let Off By The Detective: Jim Chee at one point discovers the identity of a hit-and-run drunk driver after he makes an anonymous on-air radio confession, in which he promises to send the victim's family $200 a month as penance. Chee learns that it was a one-time incident and the man is caring for a grandson with fetal alcohol syndrome. Chee not only lets the man go but helps him evade arrest.
- The Lost Lenore: Joe Leaphorn's wife Emma. She dies from a post-surgical infection and Leaphorn never gets over it.
- Meaningful Name: Part of Navajo culture is that you get a real name known only to your closest family members, which describes you in some way. Bernie's is Girl Who Laughs.
- Noble Savage: Generally averted. Hillerman's Native Americans are portrayed as regular people who deal with stuff like politics and bureaucracy.
- Old Cop, Young Cop: Chee and Leaphorn.
- Police Procedural: Hillerman's usual genre.
- Pragmatic Villainy: In People of Darkness, the hit man Colton Wolf kills as few people as he can manage (aside from his assigned targets), because the fewer people that are killed, the shorter the resulting manhunt is.
- Professional Killer: These pop up occasionally. Sinister Pig has a Retired Complete Monster in the service of a corrupt Washington lobbyist, while The Ghostway has a survivalist working for a gangster.
- The Rez: Usually a combination of the Political Rez and the Magical Rez. The two sometimes collide.
- Ripped from the Headlines: Hunting Badger was based on the real 1998 robbery of an Indian casino.
- Scenery Porn: Hillerman is famous for his descriptions of the Southwestern desert.
- Scooby-Doo Hoax: Many of the crimes investigated by Leaphorn and Chee are often credited by more traditional Navajo as supernatural in origin. Chee often ties Navajo mythology into his understanding of the investigation.
- Shown Their Work: Hillerman's knowledge of Navajo culture is hugely extensive. He took great pains to be as accurate as possible.
- Simple Yet Awesome: Often seen in Hillerman's portrayal of hitmen. They accomplish cool things by meticulous planning and step-by-step execution (no pun intended).
- Skin Walker: The mythology is present in many of the Leaphorn/Chee novels, including one actually entitled Skinwalkers.
- Strange Cop In A Strange Land: Chee occasionally travels to other parts of the country during his investigations. He goes to Los Angeles in The Ghostway and Washington, D.C. in Talking God. In both cases being away from the reservation and in the city gives his mild culture shock.
- There Are No Coincidences: Leaphorn's personal philosophy, influenced by the Navajo belief in the interconnectedness of all things.
- Unintentional Period Piece: Dance Hall of the Dead, published in 1973, features a hippie commune, a psychedelic drug experience, and references to the Vietnam War.